My old work with tribals in Assam (along the Stilwell Road)

Wating for the Dawn

Reprinted with Permission of author Subhalakshmi Gogoi (Sentinel Assam)

A swollen river. A ramshackle boat. A frail boatman. Dare to cross the river? The wise will call it foolhardy. But, for the villagers of Phaneng, a hamlet situated in the easternmost corner of Upper Assam and 124 kms away from Dibrugarh, this river is a part of their daily routine. The only way to reach the National Highway-37 is by crossing the Tirap river. The ferocity of the river in monsoons does not daunt them, as they have no other choice.

Cocooned in verdant greenery, Phaneng stands unspoiled and pristine on the banks of the river Tirap. The Buddha Vihara that stands at the entrance of the village gives a touch of spirituality to the serenity, which reigns the place. Most of the houses stand on stilts. Almost every house has huge gardens of areca nuts, palms, fruit trees and bamboos. Every household seems self-sufficient. The peace that reigns in the village is a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of the city life. They are blessedly untouched by the madness of today’s modern world.

The story behind how the village got its name makes an interesting history. When the first person, Aiong Khow Pomung came to settle in a place from Pomung, nine miles north of Margherita in 1950, the Tirap river could be seen from afar flowing down the Dehing-Patkai. The river water appeared like a red wall, red because of the mud that it carries during monsoons. So, the village came to be known as ‘Pha-neng’, ‘pha’ meaning ‘sharp incline’ and ‘neng’ meaning ‘red’. Thus, the name means an ‘inclined red wall’ in Tai-Phake.

The silence that prevails over the place, and which is broken by the cries of birds and animals only, hides in its fold many problems. The people of Phaneng do not enjoy the basic amenities, which their counterparts in the city have, like electricity, water supply, education, health and proper communication. The village has a population of around 175 families, out of which 23 belong to the Tai-Phake community, and the others are a composition of Ahoms, Kacharis and Nepalis.

A well, near Buddha Vihar, is the only source of safe potable water for the villagers. Hand pumps are few; boring a hole into the ground poses a problem, since the village is in a hilly area. It is also an expensive affair. Besides, the underground water level is very low. To top it all, the water pumped is rich in iron content. The river water is clear in winter, but once the rains come, the water turns muddy. So, the villagers head for the river, when the water level is low only to bathe and wash clothes. Health facilities in the village are non-existent; there is neither any health-care centre nor any qualified health workers to even cater to the simple ailment of a villager. The nearest place that patients from the village can hope to find a doctor or trained personnel is in Lekhapani, 13 kms away. The journey for a seriously ill patient of Phaneng can hardly be put in words. For, Phaneng has no roads.

The public works departments is in deep slumber. During monsoons, footwear adorns the hands of people. For a person, who is not used to walking on slippery and muddy roads, walking on the tricky tracks is no less an ordeal. The village is accessible by vehicles only during winter, when the river water recedes and the water level drops. On reaching the village, a portion of the stretch is gravel-strewn, thanks to the efforts of an NGO. After crossing the Tirap river, people have to navigate a small rivulet that has made a deep gorge. A fragile bamboo bridge connects the two sides of the rivulet, which clearly shows that it might give way at any moment. Even to cross the Tirap river, there is just a worn out boat. Ferry service is absent.

The village has had no supply of electricity for more than 10 years. The tall iron pillars are the reminders of the period when the village briefly enjoyed the facility. The transformer was put in a nearby village — Kengya, but soon, enough hooking and theft of electricity put an end to the story. Once the sun sets, people light their kerosene lamps. The households that have televisions use batteries to run their sets.

The village has only a primary school set up in 1952 and provincialized in 1956. The school has just two teachers. The present strength of children is 65. After the launching of the Sarbasiksha Abhijan, a centre has been set up in the village. But the children, after doing their primary schooling, either have to face up the daily ordeal of crossing the Tirap river and go to Ledo, 22 km away or to Jagun a few kms away for further studies. Those who can afford, they put their children in boarding schools. The number of graduates in the village stands at single digit. Most of the youth, after completing their schooling, get into subsistence farming.

The villagers are mainly cultivators. They grow sali rice and mustard. But slowly, few of them are venturing into tea cultivation and organic fruit growing. Women in the village supplement the family income by weaving clothes in their looms. The Tai-Phakes, in the village, wear their traditional dress — girls wear a wrap-around skirt with shirts and a long diagonally folded cloth across the shoulder, married women wrap colourful rihas round their chests, indicating there marital status, and the men wear lungis. The Tai-Phake women use natural dyes to colour muga threads; yellow and purple colours predominate their skirts.

The villagers have no expectations from the government. Over the years, they have just been neglected by the system. However, the fact that the island had remained cut off from the mainstream for so long seems to have worked to their advantage, if the recent developments are to be taken into account.

The village has recently been developed into an eco-tourist destination as part of the Joint Forest Management (JFM) livelihood program being undertaken by the Department of Forest, Assam — an integral aspect of which is the participatory involvement of the community at the grassroots level. In 2005, plans were drawn and estimates finalized for putting the required infrastructure of a model eco-tourist village into place. The work was finished in December of that year and the village was able to receive the first batch of tourists by January of 2006 for the Dehing-Patkai Festival. Carin Jodha Fischer, co-ordinator and advisor for the eco-tourism sector of the JFM, was all praise for the unstinting support she received from the department. Carin hopes that she will be able to shield the village from the spoils of unsustainable development by providing alternative employment avenues for the people through community based eco tourism.

Carin Jodha Fischer quotes a boy whom she met at a meeting that she had with the heads of the tribes and the officials at Lekhapani:

“Earlier, our only thought was how to leave this place for greener pastures. But now, we have realized the uniqueness of our place. We no longer think of leaving, thanks to you.” Carin Jodha Fischer was moved by the boy’s remark. Somewhere high above, the spirit of Aiong Khow Pomung must be smiling.

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